Johannes Ockeghem: Missa pro defunctis
Bent Sørensen: Fragments of Requiem
Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier (conductor)
Recorded August 2006 and March 2011 – 61’32
Dacapo Records 6.220571 – Booklet in English, Danish
Paul Hillier and Bent Sørensen certainly deserve credit for bravery and originality. The idea of intermingling Ockeghem's indisputably seminal setting of Requiem mass, which have stood up to 500 years of judgment, with Sørensen's recent settings of more contemporary additions to that Catholic ceremony is audacious and, in the end, touchingly successful. This is an excellent disc showing that, even in the course of half a millennium, there is a stylistic continuum in the greatest art music that, when respected and acknowledged, can throw into stunning relief the seemingly familiar.
Sørensen frames and places centerpieces in Ockeghem's structure. Beginning with an evocative, slightly more dissonant and rhythmically obtuse setting of the Responsorium ("Memento mei Deus"), the shift into Ockeghem's Introit and Kyrie creates a subtle aural vortex. The style certainly changes, but the ending of the modern Danish composer's creation morphs effortlessly into the opening of the Franco-Flemish master's music. Sørensen is likewise responsible for inserting two excerpts from the Dies Irae sequence, beginning with the plainchant, so familiar from Liszt and Rachmaninoff, and overlapping, wave-like, in the newly-composed Recordare. The music forms a wedge, from the monophony of the chant to a dense contrapuntal climax, before it recedes again to a single line for the Juste judex. The expertly controlled stasis of the Lacrimosa is extremely moving, recalling Ligeti's Lux Aeterna.
The spatial conceit of the Sanctus, a melding of Ockeghem, Sørensen and Monteverdi, doesn't seem to come across on a simple two-speaker setup, but the dynamic swells and sweeping lines provide something of a climax to the entire disc. Here the stylistic shifts occur rather rapidly, but by this point in the proceedings it doesn't jar the ear. Sørensen's closing In Paradisum begins simply enough, with strict imitative polyphony, and then warps through the composer's prism into eery, rhythmically complex waves of sound, reaching a rich resonant high point with some gorgeously placed sonorities in the extreme lows of the chorus, returning again into a more "simple" overlapping of imitative polyphony at the end.
Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen are wholly expert in the performance of the hybrid work. The recorded sound, described with a detailed diagram in the liner notes, is a model of clarity and balance and, even with two recording sessions separated by five years, the performance sound seamless. Indeed, the entire experience transcends both time and stylistic pigeonholing. Is this "new" music or "old"? In keeping with Sørensen's absorption and acceptance of music from all periods, that question becomes unanswerable. What is a surety is the quality of the performance and the emotional content that bends and tantalizes the mind in just the right proportions. An excellent addition for fans of Ockeghem as well as those who admire the a cappella works of Pärt and Schnittke who are looking to explore avenues slightly further off the beaten path.
Marcus Karl Maroney